The Embrace (a $189 device now raising funds on Indiegogo) has the slickness of a Jawbone Up and the brains of a PhD student. Like fitness-focused wearables, the device tells time and keeps tabs on metrics like physical activity and sleep. But the Embrace goes one step further, measuring its wearer’s stress levels by tracking something called electrodermal activity (EDA). EDA is essentially a measurement of the skin’s conductance; as humans get excited or stressed, the amount of sweat on their skin fluctuates. The Embrace’s sensors are able to track little changes in skin conductance and communicate via vibrations when the wearer is experiencing higher than normal levels of stress.

Quantifying emotional levels has some practical applications—For example, were you nervous during your boardroom presentation? Did you really have fun on that date?—but it’s also a useful indicator for predicting epileptic seizures, especially when paired with physical activity data. To understand why, you have to travel back a couple decades to the MIT Media Lab

The Embrace is the end product in a long road of development. Since the 1990s Rosalind Picard has been researching how to best measure emotion though sensors. In 2007 Picard (at the time the head of the Affective Computing group at MIT) developed the iCalm, a wearable that tracked EDA levels on the wrist. She was interested in quantifying emotion, in particular the emotions of people with non-verbal autism. At the time, she had no idea that her sensors would also be a way to predict seizures.

Over Christmas break one year, one of her students took the sensors home to track the EDA levels of his brother, who is nonverbal and autistic, in order to see what was causing him stress. The student strapped sensors to both of his brother’s wrists, and Picard monitored the data remotely. One day she noticed an abnormal spike in EDA on the right side of the body, but not the left. In a post, Picard wrote that she assumed the lopsided spike was a sensor error—not an indicator of something bigger.

When she asked her student what had happened that day, he replied that his brother had experienced a grand mal seizure 20 minutes after the massive spike in EDA. After more testing Picard a found that the sensors could also correlate spikes in EDA to the flattening of brainwaves that happened after massive seizures. The bigger the spike in EDA, the longer the brain waves flattened.

This was huge news for Picard and her fellow researchers. If seizures could be predicted through monitoring skin conductance, why not develop a wearable bracelet that could gather that data daily, in real world settings? Picard partnered with Lai of Empatica, and they got to work.

The Challenge: Getting People to Actually Wear It

Empatica’s sensors are well-respected in the science world. Before creating the Embrace, Empatica’s wearables were used exclusively in hospitals and research institutions around the world to quantify biometric data. The wrist-worn sensors were extremely accurate but bulky—they looked and felt like medical devices. Lai and Picard wanted to create a medical-grade gadget that looks like something you might find on shelves at the apple Store. “That’s what we’re good at,” says Mladen Barbaric co-founder of Pearl Studios, the design firm responsible for Embrace’s sleek industrial design.

Like most medical devices, Embrace’s biggest hurdle is compliance. “If you don’t wear it, it can’t save your life,” says Barbaric. “The best way to get people to wear it is to get everybody to wear it.” This meant the Embrace needed to be small—a real challenge when you consider the number of sensors involved. It also helped if it looked cool. “It was a very painful process of taking things out, says Lai. “When you’re in an engineering company you want to have the best of everything, but sometimes the best of everything is not what people need. You can’t convince people to carry a bigger watch around just because the scientists like it.”

Barbaric and his team previously designed the Shine, the handsome, but simple, circular activity tracker from Misfit Wearables. The Embrace has a similar minimalist look, with its slap bracelet strap and a tiny, low-profile square that contains the sensors. There’s no touch interface, just a circle that lights up to tell you the time and communicate stress levels. Most of the context comes from the accompanying app, which receives data over Bluetooth Low Energy. It keeps a log of daily activity and communicates rising EDA levels to its wearer. When a person does experience a seizure, the app will alert an emergency contact to help them. The company says the watch will stay charged for a week at a time.

The Embrace is essentially a next-level fitness tracker, and Empatica could’ve easily marketed it as such. Sure, you can count the number of steps you took or monitor your sleeping patterns, and a lot of people will use the Embrace for just that. But the data gleaned from Embrace’s sensors have a utility beyond self-quantification for the sake of getting fit. The Embrace is capable of gathering real-world data on a scale previously unknown to researchers. This is good news for epilepsy research, but you can imagine that in the future Embrace’s EDA-sensing technology will be used to monitor more conditions that just that. “There are a lot of people strapping sensors to wrist and saying we can collect this data,” says Barbaric. “But they’re taking this data and actually making something extremely, profoundly useful.”